Home Local As possible blizzardlike conditions barrel toward Chicago, advocates for homeless work to provide shelter, save lives

As possible blizzardlike conditions barrel toward Chicago, advocates for homeless work to provide shelter, save lives

by staff

As Chicago braces for possible blizzardlike conditions this week, Andy Robledo headed to West 16th Street and South Union Avenue Tuesday morning to check on two people living in black winterized tents he built. Although it was a cold morning, the weather was nothing like the extreme wind, temperatures and snow expected to roll in Thursday.

Robledo, founder of Feeding People Through Plants, said lives are on the line as people try to survive the approaching elements with subpar living conditions. One man told Robledo the zipper on his tent is broken. Robledo told the man he needs a new tent altogether. It’s just one of the mounting concerns and tasks for Robledo and other advocates in anticipation of the storm.

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“I’ve covered a lot of the large encampments,” Robledo said. “But we’re a volunteer-run organization. We just can’t get to everyone — we’re trying to.”

With subfreezing winds and well below average temperatures expected to sweep the city starting Thursday, advocates across Chicago are taking swift action to meet the urgent needs of people living without shelter before the storm emerges. From winter gear to portable heaters to tents, activists from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Night Ministry and others are working to ensure people are as prepared and protected as possible.

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“I think the conditions are going to be extremely dangerous for people who are living on the streets,” said Burke Patten, communications manager for Night Ministry. “There’s no other way to put it. We provide as many layers of clothing and information as we can ahead of time to try and provide some sense of safety and protection. But ultimately, with the weather being this bad, it’s going to be very dangerous for people.”

To keep people safe outdoors, the organization is educating people on spotting the signs of weather-related health conditions such as frostbite or hypothermia and when to seek medical attention. To help provide access to public transit as a means of shelter, they are also providing transit cards, which can also help people access warming centers.

Patten said the group has been handing out “sack suppers” and cold weather gear such as winter coats, hats, gloves, thermal underwear, sleeping bags and blankets, along with hand and foot warmers. They are also providing information about warming centers and other places people can go to seek relief from the cold.

The organization is extending the hours of its overnight shelter for young adults. Beginning Thursday evening to at least Monday morning, “The Crib” will be open 24 hours.

Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, urges people to call 311 if they witness someone in crisis this weekend or are in danger themselves. The organization’s goal has largely been trying to ensure people are informed of the resources available, including shelters.

“Even on the most beautiful summer day, it’s difficult being homeless on the streets of Chicago,” Schenkelberg said. “The difficulties are exacerbated when you have this extreme weather, because of tents — even if it’s a really great tent, it’s still just a tent. Your ability to stay warm is very limited. And oftentimes, folks are also dealing with health issues, or chronic health issues, mental health issues, behavioral health issues, and it only compounds the effects of extreme weather, so it makes it even more dangerous for them.”

Shawn Scott sweeps the sidewalk on North Milwaukee Avenue near Fulton Market on Dec. 20, 2022. Scott says once a week he cleans the entire sidewalk outside his and others' winterized tents on Milwaukee Avenue.

Officials with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services said its warming areas at the city’s six community service centers are activated when temperatures are at 32 degrees or below freezing, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. One of the facilities, the Garfield Community Service Center at 10 S. Kedzie Ave., is open on a 24-hour basis to connect families and residents to emergency shelters, officials said.

With just one warming center open 24/7, Schenkelberg is concerned about people finding shelter into the evening and night hours as well as over the weekend.

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“The warming centers are open Monday through Friday, but the worst of the cold temps are supposed to happen over the weekend, which would mean there is only one warming center available on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” Schenkelberg said. “We wish that the city had more 24-hour facilities.”

Robledo said the situation for people sheltering outdoors has already been dire, and that’s why he got ahead by assembling tents before winter hit. Robledo’s tents, which he builds by repurposing ice fishing tents, include a foundation, heating and lighting. But he said there’s only so much ground he or the organization can cover.

Robledo said he is doing emergency builds all over the city and will continue to accelerate his efforts as soon as more tents arrive. He said issues with shipping and supply chains have caused delays, but he’s expecting 30 to 35 tents to be delivered before Friday.

“These tents, they withstood last winter, but still, it’s just a tent,” he said. “It’s not a house, so anything can happen. We’ll be boots on the ground all week long and making sure people are stocked up and warm.”

As for those who’ve constructed their own makeshift shelters or are still using their summer tents, they “don’t stand a chance,” according to Robledo. Most tents used by people aren’t built to stand up to the brutal winds and temperatures the city is expecting to see.

“It gets flattened almost instantly,” Robledo said. “Most of the traditional Coleman tents that you see out at the camps will not withstand the winds. They will collapse with snow. They don’t hold any heat. It’s just as cold inside of them than it is outside. Temperatures will reach dangerous levels inside of those tents.”

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Andy Robledo, who has been building winterized tents for individuals experiencing homelessness around the city in the past year, speaks with a person under a viaduct at South Union Avenue and West 16th Street on Dec. 20, 2022.

But many people experiencing homelessness may not even be aware of the brutal conditions ahead. Robledo said people who are already struggling to stay warm don’t enjoy the “luxury” of time and preparation. The focus is on making it through the day.

People also may not have access to information about the forecasts at all.

“It’s really hard to operate beyond the next moment when you can’t stay warm, to even think about what the next step is,” Robledo said. “That’s why we need to be out there with the foresight to know that this is going to be bad.”

Recently the city took down a tent Robledo built off South Union Avenue, though the city had told him they would stop tagging his tents for removal during cleanups. In a statement to the Tribune, the city argued that no one was living in the tent — an argument Robledo disputes.

Regardless, the removal didn’t surprise him, he said. With his $250 investment gone, he said he could have moved one of the two individuals living underneath the overpass into a newer setup before the storm.

“The city needs to get people into hotels and motels immediately,” Robledo said. “It should have started happening over the weekend. The temperatures were already dropping.”

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